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‘And in ‘and, oo la la! : French Twist

French Twist

by Matthew Ryan after Georges Feydeau and Eugene Labiche

Teddington Theatre Club at Hampton Hill Theatre until 8th July

Review by Wendy Summers

French Twist is an evening of traditional French farce as seen through the eyes of a modern day Australian writer.  This in itself made it a must see for me: I quite genuinely could not fathom how it would work.   The author, Matthew Ryan has provided an excellent programme note for this production that explains quite clearly his desire to stay true to the original Labiche and Feydeau plays whilst appealing to a 21st Century audience.  This  approach works well but where Ryan is really clever is that he has taken two plays written some twenty years apart by different writers and conjoined them to make an evening’s entertainment that is perfectly joined up.  It is worth concentrating in the first half for clues as to what might happen in the second!

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The plays themselves, in the main, stand up to their reinvention well, although the second half of the evening, The Coal Seller Affair is far funnier than Jailbird and certainly resonated much better with the first night audience.  When Ryan says he made connections so that the plays go hand in hand, he does not only refer to the script and the team at Teddington Theatre Club have understood this well.   The main construction of the set remains the same, with some minor changes between the two acts; and the playing of La Marseillaise at the end of the first half and again at the beginning of the second serves to highlight the continuity between the two pieces.   As with pantomime, costumes in a farce play a huge part in identifying the characters.  Mags Wrightson’s costumes deserve a special mention here.  They are flattering, French and fantastic (in the true sense of the word) and it is impossible not to recognise each character type as soon as they make their first entrance.  An enormous amount of detail has been thought out in this production from all of the technical team.  The normally unsung person of the props cupboard (on this occasion Penny Heighes) has excelled in the provision of period gin bottles and newspapers, sparkling cat collars and various types of rotten fruit to name just a few of the odd things to grace the TTC stage this week.

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Crucially though, in order for these plays to work, the same five actors must all appear in both plays.  It would  have been easy for a club theatre such as TTC to double cast this play in order to provide opportunities for more actors.  Director Steve Taylor wisely opted not to do this and has found five actors versatile enough to seem believable in totally different roles either side of the interval.

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This is an ensemble piece that requires the above versatility to be married to the ability to play farce effectively.  This latter is not easy and some actors fared better than others in delivery, but all five work well together and have obviously worked hard at getting it right.   Although much of the characterisation is, by definition, OTT and scene-stealing is de rigueur there is no upstaging in this production at all.  The play has been directed with precision – one could almost say it has been choreographed – and it is with an obvious amount of confidence that each actor knows exactly where they should be and how they should be moving at any given time.  But one cannot pre-judge an audience reaction and there were times on opening night that some of the jokes may well have not got the laugh they deserved because the cast were not confident in waiting for that laugh to come.  Of course these audience reactions will be different at each performance so now that first night nerves are out of the way and the cast become more comfortable in their roles it is hoped that they will be able to read the audience a little better and receive the responses they – and the script – deserve.

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Despite the ensemble feel to the piece each actor had – and took – the opportunity to excel in each play.  Special mention must go to Jeremy Gill and Daniel Wain for their ability to not lose their comic timing  – or their breath – in the more physical scenes that any farce worth its salt cannot be without.  They make a formidable double act.   Dave Dadswell and Graham Titcombe both made the most of their somewhat lesser stated characters and were very entertaining, although they seemed less comfortable with the genre than the other actors.  However, Rachel Burnham as Pepita+Norine managed not only to survive as the lone female on stage but positively shine.  La Lombelle is alive and well and living somewhere near Hampton!

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In conclusion, whether you go to see French Twist to undertake an academic exercise on adaptations of classic plays, to find out what happens to Fido the dog or where to buy the best strawberries in Paris, or just for a light hearted evening of comedy I doubt you will be disappointed.

Wendy Summers

July 2017

Photographs by Hand Written Photography

Not Fade Away: The Buddy Holly Story

The Buddy Holly Story

by Alan Janes

Alan Janes Productions at Richmond Theatre until 1st July

Review by Thomas Forsythe

Two weeks ago, I was driving along the A303, that long straight stretch of country road, when suddenly there loomed up a strange sight, Mattia’s Diner, an authentic 1950’s American road-trip diner, seemingly lost in the middle of Somerset, like an aluminium and neon ship aground on a foreign sandbank.  Of course, I stopped to eat.  Once there, I wished I had come in my be-finned 1959 Chevy convertible (except I haven’t got one), as inside the Diner is all authentic US memorabilia of the period, with plenty of pictures of Marilyn, Frank, Elvis and of course Buddy Holly.

Enter Richmond Theatre this week and you will feel the same, for The Buddy Holly Story has come to town.  Billed as “The World’s Most Successful Rock n’ Roll Musical” the UK production of this jukebox musical has been touring all year, so grab your chance while it is in Richmond.

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In fact what you get is two shows.  The first half is a biography of just two years of the legendary singer’s life, whereas most of the second half is an ultra-high-energy tribute show to Buddy and his contemporaries, largely based on Holly’s final concert at Clear Lake, Iowa.  The show within the show commemorates the musician who is recognised as the foundation of rock n’ roll.  Although earlier he had been at the foot of the playbill for then up-and-coming names such as Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, his own recording career lasted under two years.  Nevertheless, it was Buddy Holly who is the inspiration for the megastars of the genre who followed, including the name most closely associated with Richmond, The Rolling Stones.

The Richmond connection continues into this very production, as the eponymous role in The Buddy Holly Story is played by Alex Fobbester, who lived and trained in Kingston and Chiswick.  Fobbester’s portrayal of Buddy Holly is a well-researched study.  The looks, the mannerisms are all there, including the awkward smile and the fiddling with the trademark spectacles.  Holly was self-assured but impetuous, respectful but rebellious and these character traits (perhaps they are those that guarantee success) are well studied.  Holly’s tirelessness is there too, and Fobbester obviously has that in common, as he puts his all into his multi-talented performance, as actor, singer, guitarist and dancer.

Being multi-talented seems to run across the whole cast, who multi-task their bobby-socks off, and almost all of whom have multiple roles.  The principal role of Buddy is also a split role shared with Glen Joseph, an acclaimed Buddy Holly tribute artist.

Yee-hah!! We start in Texas, in Lubbock, Buddy’s home town, where we visit the Grand Bowl, the KDAV radio station and, yes, a diner, uncannily like one on the A303.

Hipockets Duncan, the top DJ at the KDAV radio station launched the fledging career of Buddy Holly as a regular item in his country and western programme, but when Holly began to insist on adding in his own style including percussive guitar playing, bent notes, and rhythm n’ blues flourishes; plus vocal idiosyncrasies such as falsetto passages and hiccoughs (!) listeners complained.  Duncan tore up Holly’s contract with KDAV … but not before he had landed him with a recording contract with Decca.  Matthew Quinn’s Duncan has all the Texan characteristics to a tee, the easy, gangling style of walking and talking; all laid-back until riled.

Of course Buddy would not have been Buddy without The Crickets, and we are treated to some of the early chart-toppers, Not Fade Away, and Peggy Sue.  Peggy Sue was the name of the girlfriend of Jerry Allison, the drummer for the Crickets (but the song was originally entitled Cindy Lou after Holly’s niece).  Josh Haberfield’s drumming skills as Allison complement those of his acting skills.  Equally, Joe Butcher as Joe B. Maudlin, double bass with The Crickets is able to show his twin skills to the full.  The Crickets and Holly were initially inseparable, until exhaustion, contract law and petty squabbles eventually frayed their relationship.

The Decca contact was an early one without the Crickets, but it didn’t work and they were soon on their way together to Clovis, New Mexico, to see Norman Petty, another introduction from Hipockets Duncan.  Petty was very much more open to their style and immediately signed a contract with them: for 50-50 of the royalties plus a tithe to the local church.  This was later to prove a source of great friction between them and disputes over royalties even dogged his estate after his death.  Alex Tosh plays Petty as a slick and pragmatic realist.   Celia Cruwys-Finnigan spices her role as Petty’s wife Vi with a good sprinkling of humour and impressively “shakes it” at the piano.   The Petty’s are credited with introducing more innovations to the repertoire, including “that echo thing” as Buddy called the tape lag, and the use of the celesta (the keyboard instrument best known in Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.  Vi plays the celesta in Holly’s Everyday, while Jerry Alison’s percussion is by created slapping his thighs.

Under Petty’s encouragement, Holly wrote and recorded his first and most successful blockbuster hit with The Crickets, That’ll Be the Day.   In less than twelve months it was top of the charts in seven different countries. (The song’s title is a quote from a line in a John Wayne Western.)

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Recording trips to New York led to Holly accepting a live concert in the Apollo Theatre, not knowing that it was one of Harlem’s “black” music venues.  Regular performers there, played with great dexterity and remarkable dancing skills by Miguel Angel and Jordon Cunningham, expect them to be booed off the stage, or worse, but in fact after an unsure start, they are enthusiastically accepted after a rending of Not Fade Away and Oh Boy.  Puerto Rican, Miguel Angel, himself a vibrant performer in the show, dancer, singer and trombonist, doubles as the show’s choreographer.

In New York, at the office of Murray Deutch (played by Matthew Quinn), Holly met Maria Elena Santiago, the receptionist.  Within five minutes of meeting her, true to his impulsive nature, Holly told her he would marry her.  He proposed on his first date within five hours of meeting her, and married her within five months, a precipitous act that both his mother and The Crickets thought reckless.  Kerry Low plays a warm and believable Maria, the outsider unacceptable and barely accepted by Holly’s circle.

 

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Holly’s final show at the Clear Lake Concert gives the The Buddy Holly Story company chance to really go to town.  Designer Adrian Rees’ set for the first half has a “window on the world” metaphor as it is overseen by an insert level that is variously recording studio, radio station, and control rooms in literal and metaphorical senses, whereas the show within the show fills the stage with swagged drapes and stacks of pizzazz.  This is an ideal foil for lighting designer Daz Coopland to use intelli-lights and special effects to really punch the atmosphere.  The lighting for Harlem’s Apollo gave full reign to a palette of saturated colour which is then given the full-on bling in Clear Lake.  And it goes without saying that Pete Cox’s sound design made for a very busy time for his techies.

 

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The Clear Lake Concert introduces two of Holly’s co-performers, Ritchie Valens and J. P. Richardson, known as The Big Bopper to all.  Jordan Cunningham is a fantastically energetic and agile dancer, with vertebrae jarring swirlings, whirlings and gyrations that pay high-voltage homage to the style of Ritchie Valens especially in his set number La Bamba.  And for high-voltage exuberance The Big Bopper was superlative.  He brought rockabilly to rock n’ roll.  Thomas Mitchells plays The Big Bopper, well, big.  There can be no other way than OTT, which Mitchells unashamedly and consummately gives.  Dressed in leopard-skin drape jacket, pink trousers and built-up red suede shoes, it demands a musical statement, and it comes in the form of The Big Bopper’s 1958 hit, Chantilly Lace.   The whole cast joins in party and our first night audience loved it, boogying away standing in front of their seats.  The Buddy Holly Story director Matt Salisbury must be smiling broadly at the show’s reception as he has done on previous tours going back to 1989.

Then Buddy Holly, in the form of Alex Fobbester, is back with two quieter numbers, Raining in My Heart and It Doesn’t Matter Any More, ironic titles in the original Clear Lake Concert in 1959.  We Rave On with Johnny B Goode and suddenly with the party going full blast … all goes quiet and dark.  Then a spotlight on Holly’s guitar standing on the forestage.

That evening on 3rd February, 1959 exactly five hundred days after That’ll Be the Day topped the U.S. charts, Holly and his co-stars left the Clear Lake Concert to fly by light plane to the next gig in Moorhead, Minnesota.  The plane crashed shortly after take-off and music stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, all died together with the pilot Roger Peterson.   Holly’s Fender Stratocaster marks his grave.  The tragedy is referred to as “the day the music died” in Don McLean’s well-known 1971 song American Pie.

If I go back to that diner on the A303, I shall order a big helping of American Pie, and think (Think it Over, in the words of the song) of Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper … and Buddy Holly.

Thomas Forsythe

June 2017

Photography by Johnny Wilkinson

 

Virginity Lost, Nostalgia Gained: Albert Herring

Albert Herring

by Benjamin Britten, libretto Eric Crozier

Grange Festival at The Grange, Hampshire until 9th July

Review by Mark Aspen

Now here’s a world long past: everyone knows his place in society, strong moral anchors, deference to authority.  Whether you regard it with nostalgia or with abhorrence, this was the norm a century ago.  Or was it?   Albert Herring, Benjamin Britten’s parody of the provincial, its modes, manners and morality, is a gentle satire of those times.  Witty, but self-effacing, Britten’s mock-grandiose score and Crozier’s mock-simplistic libretto bounce off each other with great dexterity, high energy, and a huge sense of illicit fun.

Seventy years after its premiere at Glyndebourne, the Grange Festival has brought together a vibrant company, combining eminent experience with new talent, to create a wonderfully fresh and clever production.

Director John Copley has had a celebrated career extending more than half a century as an opera director, including at Covent Garden, and the value of that experience shows.  Copley has a subtle approach, playing it straight down the middle and letting the words and music speak for themselves.  It is the sub-caricature, tweaking the presentation to larger than life, that works so well, but then staying true the opera’s intentions.  The only real change is to set the opera in the 1920s instead of the original 1900.  (Although it could be argued that the momentous events of the Great War considerably changed social attitudes.)

The place setting is Loxford, an impression of a Suffolk town on the margins of East Anglia, Britten’s own beloved heartland.  The set, by internationally renowned designer, Tim Reed has a lovely muted mellowness, which include cherubic Poussin-esque cloudscapes.  The interiors are cleverly trucked to transform from Lady Billows’ reception rooms, to Mrs Herring’s greengrocer’s shop, to the rougher of the local pubs.  These are accurately period perfect, but what adds the poetry are the mats of bulrushes, which form an atmospheric background.  In scene changes the mats are floated to new positions by actresses with boathooks, a nice detail.  This is seen in silhouette against the evocatively lit cyclorama.  Kevin Treacy has also built an international career as a lighting designer and the ambience created by his lighting truly complements the score.   Night falls, the bassoon ushers in twilight, and the evening sky begins its transition through the spectrum: pure magic.  Prue Handley’s costume designs, true to the 1920’s, also mirror mood and action: Lady Billows wears regal colours, the mayor town-hall drab, the greengrocer, well, green; but when the worse is expected, all are funereal black.

Albert Herring - Benjamin Britten - The Grange Festival - 25 June 2017

Conductor - Steuart Bedford
Director - John Copley
Set Designer - Tim Reed
Costume Designer - Prue Handley
Lighting Designer - Kevin Treacy

Lady Billows - Orla Moylan
Florence Pike -

Loxford is a matriarchal society: all the older women are fearsome, and some of the younger ones too.   There is also a marked authoritarian hierarchy.  Lady Billows rules with a rod of iron (almost literally), more than ably assisted by her housekeeper and amanuensis, Miss Florence Pike, Lady B’s eyes and ears in every nook and cranny of the town.   The town’s worthies, the mayor, the vicar, the schoolmistress and the police superintendent, are summoned to the Hall.  The single agenda is to elect the town’s May Queen.  However, in spite of the pernickety prudery of the good townspeople, the natural instinct of their adolescent girls has made the supply of suitably chaste young ladies dwindle: they are more chased than chaste.  But, as her ladyship candidly puts it “we want virgins, not trollops”.  Miss Pike, the custodian of the town’s propriety, however has evidence that there is none of the former.  However, the day is saved when the superintendent makes the pragmatic suggestion that they should elect a May King instead.  It is he who with get the twenty-five sovereign prize and the orange-blossom wreath: a “crown of simple and refulgent splendour … without recourse to gender”.

When it comes to being larger than life, the personality of the indomitable Lady Billows is titanic. Irish soprano Orla Boylan, having recently taken on many of the most imposing of Wagnerian roles and many of Richard Strauss, savours the part with obvious delight and with great gusto.  Her gorgon glare petrifies all opposition, one withering look would render the bravest powerless, and what a line in eyebrow acting!  Add an imperious sculptured voice and here is an awe-inspiring Lady Billows.

Albert Herring - Benjamin Britten - The Grange Festival - 25 June 2017

Conductor - Steuart Bedford
Director - John Copley
Set Designer - Tim Reed
Costume Designer - Prue Handley
Lighting Designer - Kevin Treacy

Lady Billows - Orla Moylan
Florence Pike -

The town’s committee of moral guardians are acted with superb comic timing, but nothing is overtly played for laughs, whilst vocally they are a faultless ensemble.  When they have made their decision, they sing a beautifully figured quintet that smacks of Mozart at his best.  Anna Gillingham as the earnest and euphoric schoolmistress Miss Wordsworth, her bright soprano ringing like a school bell, has some nice comic asides when rehearsing with her young charges for the May fair, and when primly avoiding the in-spite-of-himself advances of the vicar, Mr Gedge.  (All very subtle, of course, “the flowers appear on the earth… Solomon’s Song, you know”).   Alexander Robin-Baker’s Mr. Gedge almost blushes at the idea.  His resonant baritone captures the lyricism in his words, and one feels the sincerity in his homily, “Virtue … Rarer than pearls, rubies, amethyst; richer than wealth, wisdom, righteousness”.  Mr. Upfold, the mayor, is a much more down to earth character.  His speech at the May fair concentrates on the twelve inch water main (“costing six pounds ten the yard”) before moving onto virtue.  Established character tenor, Adrian Thompson takes pomp, proclamation and patter all in his stride.  Icelandic bass-baritone Andri Björn Róbertsson bristles with righteousness as Superintendent Budd (topically bemoaning that his police force is overstretched).  This cohort of Loxford’s big-wigs is administered by the fastidious Miss Pike, played by Clarissa Meek as an acerbic and cadaverous éminence grise.  Meek knows how to use the score and her sturdy mezzo comes across as assuredly authoritarian.

Albert Herring - Benjamin Britten - The Grange Festival - 25 June 2017

Conductor - Steuart Bedford
Director - John Copley
Set Designer - Tim Reed
Costume Designer - Prue Handley
Lighting Designer - Kevin Treacy

Lady Billows - Orla Moylan
Florence Pike -

From the less buttoned-up townsfolk come Sid, the butcher’s boy, and Nancy from the bakery.  Indeed they seem to spend a lot of time unbuttoning each other (and presenting lots of opportunities for double entendres about ripe peaches and seizing the pleasures of life), but they are the most warm-hearted of Loxford’s characters.   Tim Nelson plays Sid as a Jack-the-lad and his rounded baritone has an almost folksy feel.  Kitty Whately makes a charming Nancy, flirtatious, light-hearted and caring, her tender mezzo just right for the character.  And it is inevitably Sid and Nancy who are the catalysts in making the idea of a May King go awry.

The May King is to be Albert Herring, the greengrocer’s lad, tied firmly to his widowed mum’s apron-strings, repressed and timid, but oh so good.  He is respectful of everyone and always does the right thing by the mores of the day: an ideal candidate.  The committee troop to the greengrocers with Miss Pike in the vanguard.  Albert is not so keen to be dressed in virginal white and paraded before the town, but his mother is keen on the twenty-five sovereigns.  We hear in Britten’s harp score the stream of gold coins tinkling in her mind.

Albert Herring - Benjamin Britten - The Grange Festival - 25 June 2017

Conductor - Steuart Bedford
Director - John Copley
Set Designer - Tim Reed
Costume Designer - Prue Handley
Lighting Designer - Kevin Treacy

Lady Billows - Orla Moylan
Florence Pike -

At the May fair, Albert sits embarrassed as all the archetypical speeches are made, and he is presented with the sovereigns, plus a savings’ stamp card with an extra five pounds, and the edifying Foxe’s Book of Martyrs by Miss Wordsworth.  He cringes as three schoolchildren sing his praises.   Sopranos Emily Vine and Catriona Hewitson and treble Jack Stone had all the mischievousness of Emmie, Cis and Harry, the children who taunt Albert (and Sid and Nancy).  Then the ground-swallowing moment when Albert is asked to make a speech.  Lady Billows exhorts him to “keep your powder dry and leave the rest to Nature”.    However, his metaphoric powder is not dry and neither is his lemonade.  It has been liberally spiked with rum by Sid and Nancy.  So Nature kicks in with a vengeance and off he goes on an all-night bender; steals a bike, drinks beer, rum and gin in quick succession at a series of pubs; has a fight with a publican, a quick snooze in the gutter; then off again for “a general sample of a night that was an example of drunkenness, dirt and worse”, all paid for with Albert’s “virgin ransom”.

Albert Herring - Benjamin Britten - The Grange Festival - 25 June 2017

Conductor - Steuart Bedford
Director - John Copley
Set Designer - Tim Reed
Costume Designer - Prue Handley
Lighting Designer - Kevin Treacy

Lady Billows - Orla Moylan
Florence Pike -

In the eponymous role, Richard Pinkstone paints a lively picture of Albert, never quite the wimp.  From the beginning, we feel him trying to break free from his mother’s smother-love, his discomfort at the May fair ceremony, his alcohol-triggered right-of-passage, and his manumission from his claustrophobic home-life.  Pinkstone effectively makes this emotional journey in a completely believable way.   Whilst still studying for his Master’s at Royal College of Music, he brings a very mature vocal performance with a confident operatic tenor voice.  Moreover, he clearly enjoys the role which he makes his own.

Mrs Herring knows her place, she knows what’s right … and she knows what’s right for Albert.  He is all she has and she is not going to let go.  And so he is suffocated in her matronly bosom.  One cannot help feeling a little sympathy for her.  Kathleen Wilkinson plays the strait-laced Mrs Herring as steadfastly in control, her strong mezzo robustly portraying the character.

Albert Herring - Benjamin Britten - The Grange Festival - 25 June 2017

Conductor - Steuart Bedford
Director - John Copley
Set Designer - Tim Reed
Costume Designer - Prue Handley
Lighting Designer - Kevin Treacy

Lady Billows - Orla Moylan
Florence Pike -

When Albert is missing after his nocturnal binge, all of the other adult characters prematurely fret about his fate, building to frenzied dirge with full purple passages on mortality and death.  This culminates in an extraordinary nonet, intricately structured in passacaglia form.  Ostensibly mourning Albert, one wonders whether it is really a threnody for lost virginity.  Then the bemused and befuddled Albert returns and the mood collapses in bathos.  It is brilliant writing.

Albert Herring has thirteen named roles and Britten scored it for a chamber orchestra of thirteen.  (He clearly wasn’t superstitious.)  However, his score has the feel of a full symphony orchestra in its complexity.  Moreover it is full of musical witticisms and echoes, the flute for Sid’s yoo-hoo whistle, the bassoon for nightfall, the harp for the gold coins, and the Tristan chord for the draining of the spiked drink.  It is a well-crafted piece and could not be in better hands than conductor, Steuart Bedford, who knew Britten well and worked with him in Aldeburgh, and is recognised as a foremost Britten expert.   Under his baton, the Aurora Orchestra is precise, vivacious, and intelligently paced.

The Grange Festival company under the eminent guidance of Copley and Bedford has created a stylish period piece of great charm that is hugely entertaining, musically stimulating and hellishly funny.  The world has unquestionably moved on, but the Loxford we see is gentle satirised, the nostalgia is respectful and underneath the laughter there floats an elusive wistfulness.

Mark Aspen

June 2017

Photography by Bob Workman

Absorbing, Reflective, Immaculate: Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs

by Jennifer Haley

Teddington Theatre Club at The Coward Room, Hampton Hill Theatre until 24th June

Review by Thomas Forsythe

There are illness that take away the strength of the body; there are illness that take away the strength of the mind; and then there is dementia, and that takes away the soul.   This is what makes dementia, in all its forms, so terrifying to contemplate and so destroying for the victim and those around the victim.   But why do we say “victim”?  Each one suffers and each is human.

However, we all die and we are all born.  It’s the bit in the middle that matters.  The skill of acclaimed Texan writer, Jennifer Haley, in her sensitively-handled play Breadcrumbs, is to examine the value of the bit in the middle from a dementia ravaged viewpoint.  Nevertheless, this is not a maudlin examination of personal disintegration.  The effects of dementia are the springboard for a much wider exploration of relationships, trust, worth, truth, reality and need.

There is a complexity in Haley’s script and, in the wrong hands, it could go uncomfortably awry in production.   Co-directors, Andy Smith and Jane Marcus, are both well-known as being amongst the best of local actors, but, for both, Breadcrumbs represents their directorial débuts, so here is a hard call.  However, with their small but talented company, Smith and Marcus have created a memorable theatrical moment; absorbing, reflective, artistically immaculate.

Alida is a writer who is undergoing medical investigations for a rapidly progressing form of dementia.  Her self-imposed therapy is to try to write a story in her own style (think folksy but dark fairy tale) that is strongly autobiographical.  The breadcrumbs in the title allude to the Hansel and Gretel tale, in which their wayfinding trail of breadcrumbs is eaten by birds and they are lost in a dark wood.   Alida’s breadcrumbs are her own memories and she is constantly saying that she wants to be “out of the woods”.

 

Set designer, Fiona Auty, has created a sinuously claustrophobic set in The Coward Room studio space at Hampton Hill, into which audience winds its way through overgrown woodland into a mysterious forest, set within the studio, to discover the interior of Alida’s flat in New York.   Already we are symbolically probing the interior of Alida’s mind, the woods that she wants to be out of.

The atmospheric nature of this set further enhanced by the lighting and sound design.   Steph Pang really knows how to light the Coward Room studio, her economic design follows the nuances of the time changes and the mood changes, sculpting the scene-scape.  The soundscape is an interpolation of Will Williams’ music and John Pyle’s sound, which make the jarring inconsistencies of Alida’s mind symbolically audible to the audience.

Into Alida’s disintegrating world comes Beth, an auxiliary at the hospital that is examining Alida.  Beth takes a proprietorial interest in Alida, and becomes engrossed in the biography that Alida is trying to write.  Beth encourages her to publish the work, but Alida is adamant that it is “only for myself”.  Beth even gives up her hospital job to become Alida’s part-time researcher, although Alida presciently insists that “there is no end”, and furthermore stubbornly stipulates that none of the research should be on computer, for she “loves the smell of ink on paper” (a nostalgia that your reviewer shares, particularly when the electronics assert their own freewill).  Eventually, Beth moves into Alida’s flat, temporarily … or is it?

You see, we only know this world through the eyes of the suspicious Alida, whose sense of time is erratic, but the writing leaves ambiguous the possibility that Beth may be taking advantage of the vulnerable patient.  She may equally be a benevolent self-appointed carer.  What is certain however, is that both are lonely, both are adrift emotionally and that both have “a past”.    And within the conceit of the poetic writing of the play, the characters gradually begin to mirror each other.

So Beth represents Alida’s mother, Alida her own juvenile self, and the half-remembered (or misremembered) events in Alida’s life mirror (or become) events in Beth’s (real?) life.  The ambience of the play becomes dreamlike as we enter Alida’s failing mind.  And the words become more poetic.  Alida, realising that that the veins on the back of her hand look like those on an autumnal leaf, reminisces “a yellow leaf: I thought I should write my memoirs before my brain turned brown!”

The intricate involutions of this play demands acting of the highest standard, and TTC’s company delivers it.

TTC_Breadcrumbs_For BOARD-6

Joolz Connery is simply outstanding as Alida.  She precisely pictures the stubbornness that can be ingrained in the self-reliant, the tetchiness that can follow the failing elderly, and the anxiety that always torments those with dementia.  Connery has obviously studied the mannerisms of dementia sufferers and has these to a tee.  The Alida of now and the child Alida in her mind is accurately and clearly differentiated.   The pervasive urgency of Alida’s quest is palpable, a quest to race against her failing memory, before she becomes Gretel, lost in “an infinite indifferent darkness.”

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Beth is a rootless young woman seeking roots.  Lara Parker portrays Beth as a directionless drifter, all at sea but wanting to put down an anchor.  She cannot make lasting relationships and has had a string of loveless encounters with different men.  Parker skilfully depicts this shrugging aimlessness with a measured empathy, and she also clearly differentiates the real Beth and the Beth as a personification of Alida’s mother.

Both Alida and Beth are seeking what Alida calls “points of reference” in their lives.  For Beth these include a black bin-bag of stuffed toys, her comfort blanket that she moves to each new abode; for Alida they include stick-it notes to label things before she forgets their names.  As a writer, words are important to Alida and she becomes obsessed with the etymology of words that are obviously significant to her.  She asks Beth to research “femur” and “witch”.   The symbolic allusion is back to Hansel and Gretel : the gingerbread house becomes one of body parts and she sees it roofed in mucus.  We can infer that Alida’s mind transfuses the witch with her mother and the house with the Californian villa of her mother’s lover, an exploitative pornographer, covered in muckiness.  This villa is the subject of a pair of concatenated traumatic events, which are burnt into Alida’s mind.  Maybe they foretell the direction of Beth’s life.

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The bit in the middle is still real for Beth, but for Alida the bit in the middle has itself bits missing, such is the nature of dementia.  However, another trick of dementia, rather than to hide, is to reveal.  Layers of the past can be peeled away to uncover more layers, like the bulb of an onion, releasing long-forgotten flavours.

But, as Alida says, “we create dreams, but they can never be true”.

Thomas Forsythe

June 2017

Photography by Sarah Carter

 

Improvisation of Genius: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria

Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria

by Claudio Monteverdi, libretto Giacomo Badoaro

Grange Festival at The Grange, Hampshire until 2nd July

Review by Mark Aspen

The Modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy says in his poem, Ithaca,  “Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage,  Without her you would never have taken the road…”

Odysseus’ road to home may have been two decades long, but certainly the most touching human episode described by Homer in The Odyssey is his homecoming and his reuniting with his wife Penelope.  Ulisse’s (Odysseus’) landfall on a deserted Ithacan beach is the starting point for Monteverdi’s majestic opera, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria.

Claudio Monteverdi, maestro di capella at St Mark’s Venice, was 74 years old when he composed this remarkable work.  That was in 1641, four years after opening of Teatro San Cassiano, regarded as the first opera house.   Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria has been described as “an improvisation of genius, a vast sketch in which certain parts have been worked out, and others scarcely outlined”.  2017 marks the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth, and the Grange Festival’s production is a fitting celebration of this “improvisation of genius”.

The journey to Cavafy’s Ithaca “… is long, full of adventure, full of knowledge”.  Homer certainly ascribes a series of human weaknesses to Odysseus’ protracted return journey, a point that Monteverdi, and his librettist Badoaro, clearly remind us in the Prologue to Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, in which L’umana fragilità (Human Frailty) is mocked by Tempo, Fortuna and Amore (the gods of Time, Fortune and Love).  Man is slave to their every whim.  

In this production, L’umana fragilità is (ostensibly) a hapless member of the audience, a latecomer, who is pulled onto the stage to be stripped of his dinner suit and subjected to all sorts of indignities.  The vocal tormenting by Tempo, Fortuna and Amore comes from three singers (Paul Whelan, Donna Bateman and Lorneza Paz Nieto), whereas their “physicalisations” are by a stilt-walking grim reaper, a pretty young girl riding a bicycle, and a blindfolded cupid mounted on sprung powerbocks.  These gods remind us that every human is assaulted by Time, is Fortune’s toy, and that Love is a god that even hurts gods.  Countertenor, Robin Blaze, creates a picture of L’umana fragilità helpless against the ravages of these forces of life and, when he is exposed spread-eagled on circular table, an analysed and proportioned human, referencing Leonardo da Vinci’s L’Uomo Vitruviano, we feel his plaintive cry “misero sono mio!”.

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria - Claudio Monteverdi - The Grange Festival - 7th June 2017

Musical Director - Michael Chance
Director - Tim Supple
Designer - Sumant Jayakrishnan
Movement Director - Debbie Fionn Barr
Lighting Designer - Jackie Shemesh
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This outré setting characterises a presentation of imaginative invention.  And so the quirky gods continue with Nettuno (Neptune) jetting up through a stage-trap in a wetsuit with flak-jacket, harpoon gun and oversize harpoons, all jet-black; whereas Giove (Jupiter) is a rigger from an industrial plant, atop an hydraulic “cherry-picker” platform and carrying an angle-grinder (which subsumes the role of thunder-bolt).  Minerva first appears disguised as a shepherd boy, gathering a flock of sheep made from bicycle saddles and coiled springs all painted white.  When she resumes her own identity, it is as the Owl of Minerva with blue silky wings and huge myopic spectacles.

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria - Claudio Monteverdi - The Grange Festival - 7th June 2017

Musical Director - Michael Chance
Director - Tim Supple
Designer - Sumant Jayakrishnan
Movement Director - Debbie Fionn Barr
Lighting Designer - Jackie Shemesh
Vid

The fertile mind of designer Sumant Jayakrishnan, together with Jackie Shemesh and Ziggy Jacobs-Wyburn, his lighting and video co-designers, has provided a fine foil for the controlled clarity of Monteverdi’s music.   With a bare revolve stage and strong colours as the base, lighting and video are back-projected onto translucent panels, which are reassembled for the different settings and onto which the surtitles appear in a typeface that varies between characters.  Ulisse and Telemaco wear battle-stained twenty-first century combat fatigues and inspired designs also extend to Penelope’s costumes. Penelope is wrapped in a white girdle by Melanto, her lady-in-waiting, a wide and endlessly long tape that could be a swaddling band or could be a chastity belt.  In either case it is unwrapped by Ulisse in the final scene.  However, to meet the suitors, Penelope wears a magnificently sculptured pannier dress, almost like her personal castle walls surrounding her.

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria - Claudio Monteverdi - The Grange Festival - 7th June 2017

Musical Director - Michael Chance
Director - Tim Supple
Designer - Sumant Jayakrishnan
Movement Director - Debbie Fionn Barr
Lighting Designer - Jackie Shemesh
Vid

Director, Tim Supple, former artistic director of the Young Vic, has a wide-ranging vision for this opera that encompasses all this idiosyncratic symbolism, and more.  Although this blend of post-modernistic design and early Baroque music could seem self-indulgent, it works brilliantly … and largely (and maybe surprisingly) unobtrusively.

Michael Chance, The Grange Festival’s artistic director, is himself an opera singer (probably a unique situation in Britain) and indeed is internationally renowned as a foremost counter-tenor.  One feels that The Grange Festival’s production of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria is Chance’s brainchild, and he has personally adopted the role of musical director.   The opera is in good hands, for Chance clearly understands Monteverdi, with its fluid and lively scoring, its descriptive purity and its emotional intensity.  Chance, lucky man, gets two groups of musicians, two sets of instruments for the Baroque period, each with its own pit.  One is The Division Lobby, of plucked instruments, which provides the continuo.    The other is The Academy of Ancient Music Resident Orchestra, which plays the ritornello on bowed instruments.

However, as Chance himself says, “Strip away the non-essentials of opera and what are you left with?  Singing.  Singing is the core of opera …”.  Nevertheless, to bring the characters to life requires good acting as well as good singing, and in this production the cast excels in both aspects.

Ulisse 3

As Ulisse, Paul Nilon portrays a man who is heroic but astute, noble but patient, the man to be shipwrecked with if you wish to survive.  His strong lyrical tenor voice encapsulates Ulisse’s anguish at being at his goal, but not quite.   (And how can he hold that bent pose for so long in his disguise as the decrepit down-and-out?)   Italian mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus is outstanding as a regal, resolute and contained Penelope, her fine voice interpreting the baroque score with an expressive simplicity.  Her opening, “di misera regina” captures the emotion of the piece in a moving and dignified manner.  The final duet when the torments of Ulisse and Penelope have ceased and the reunion is complete, “O delle mie fatiche meta dolce e soave”, the sweet and gentle ending, was extremely touching.

The clean tenor voice of Thomas Elwin brings a vigour and a vibrancy to Telemaco, the son of Ulisse and Penelope, and the emotion journey from doubt to acceptance of his long-lost father is very convincing.  Telemaco’s ill-judged praise to the beauty of Helen, the cause of all their woes, is itself beautifully rendered by Elwin.

One of most sympathetic characters is that of Eumente, the elderly swineherd and faithful retainer at Ulisse’s household, and this part is acted with great poignancy by established tenor Nigel Robson, who sings with a resonance that allows the emotions in the character to show through. Equally Fiona Kimm bringst to life Penelope’s elderly nurse, the knowing and wise Ericlea, with her mature mezzo singing.  Soprano Donna Bateman is a flirtatious Melanto, who suggests to Penelope that no one loses the game of love and that she should yield to the suitors.

Monteverdi, for the purposes of the opera, reduces the number of Homer’s a whole generation of suitors to a more economical three, but these are widely drawn and from across the full male register: Pisandro (baroque countertenor Robin Blaze), Anfinomo (character tenor Harry Nicoll) and Antinoo (bass Paul Whelan).  Vibrant in solo, they are vivid in trio, creating a richly multi-layered sound, as in “Compagni, udiste?” (Friends, do you hear?).

 

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria - Claudio Monteverdi - The Grange Festival - 7th June 2017

Musical Director - Michael Chance
Director - Tim Supple
Designer - Sumant Jayakrishnan
Movement Director - Debbie Fionn Barr
Lighting Designer - Jackie Shemesh
Vid

The suitors have been predatory with Penelope, the palace and the patrimony of Ulisse.   When they hear that Telemaco has returned with a beggar in tow, they plan to kill him, and they up the ante with Penelope, offering titles, gold and power.  Penelope’s challenge to them to show that they are as good as Ulisse by drawing his archer’s bow gives them hope, but none can succeed.  In this production, the competition involves passing the bowstring around Penelope.  The movement choreography, by Debbie Fionn Barr, in this sequence was visually very pleasing (as it was generally) and true to the score.  Clearly she is meant to be a “tug-of-love” woman, but is this stretching the visual pun a bit too far?  (Excuse the verbal pun.)  With the help of Minerva, all three suitors fail in their quest, but when the beggar, the disguised Ulisse, asks to try and then succeeds, this is the cue for the suitors’ massacre.   The dramatic tension at this point is as tight as Ulisse’s bowstring, and it is an accolade to the acting that a lady, one of the staid members of the Grange audience, sitting behind your reviewer, involuntarily let out, through clenched teeth, an audible “Yesss!”.

As the ubiquitous Minerva, the wise owl goddess, mezzo-soprano Emma Stannard gives a charming and animated performance.  The other principal god, Nettuno, he of the black wetsuit and harpoons, is the very imposing and impressive figure of the tall bass singer, Paul Whelan.  Whelan also plays Tempo and Antinoo, the suitor, and is able to extend easily into the baritone range without losing any of the rich fullness of his voice.

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria - Claudio Monteverdi - The Grange Festival - 7th June 2017

Musical Director - Michael Chance
Director - Tim Supple
Designer - Sumant Jayakrishnan
Movement Director - Debbie Fionn Barr
Lighting Designer - Jackie Shemesh
Vid

Another memorable performance was that of Ronald Samm as the parasitic slob Iro, the glutton and drunken hanger-on with the suitors.  His voice is superb and rounded, and he has imposing stage presence.   The solo, “O dolor, o martir che l’alma attrista”, sung after the demise of the suitors, when he decides to kill himself as he can no longer indulge his gluttony (O grief, O torment that saddens the soul) is pure bathos, but one cannot help but feel sympathy.

Such is the contrary nature of the Grange Festival’s production of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria.   Remarkable, quirky, intellectually stimulating and beautiful, it takes us from Homer’s “wine-dark seas” to Ithaca and on to Monteverdi’s “improvisation of genius”.

Mark Aspen

June 2017

Photography by Bob Workman

 

Butcher and Friends Hit Eel Pie for Six: The Boom Band

The Boom Band

The Eel Pie Club,

The Cabbage Patch, Twickenham 15th June

Review by Cliff Tapstand.

It’s very rare to find a renowned performer in one form of entertainment playing a leading role in another totally different and unrelated pursuit.  But, there we were, at The Eel Pie Club greeting The Boom Band, who were making their first appearance at the venue with former Surrey and England Cricketer, Mark Butcher playing lead guitar.  But the surprise didn’t stop there.  Most groups have one lead guitarist, some will have two and very infrequently there may be three, but, The Boom Band have four, and every one of them highly talented musicians.    To complete the front line of the stage there was a stand-in bass player.   But, this was no ordinary stand-in, his name is Malcolm Bruce, son of the late, great Jack Bruce of “supergroup”, Cream.  The full line up was completed by Paddy Milner on keyboards and Wayne Proctor on drums.

the boom band-12

Photographs by Pat Stancliffe 

It’s easy to think that four guitarists on stage at the same time could get a bit competitive, or even confusing, but nothing could be further from the truth.  It’s obvious from the moment they walk on stage that they enjoy playing together and are having just as good a time as their audience.  Their play list for the gig was drawn almost entirely from their excellent album, The Moon Goes Boom: Live in London, which is a well balanced mix of their own compositions and blues standards.

The Four Guitarists

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First up on the playlist was Terraplane Blues, a song by the American blues legend, Robert Johnson.  We’re then into the first two album tracks, Diamonds in the Rust, and Under the Skin.  Next up is Junko Partner, a song written by Bob Shad, and first released by James Waynes in 1951, later to be covered by The Clash, Dr. John and many others.  Some great keyboard playing on this by Paddy Milner, twice winner of the Best Keyboard Player in The British Blues Award.  Two more ‘home produced’ songs, Moonshine and Red Eye of the Devil follow,  Before, Get Outta My Life Woman, first recorded by Lee Dorsey in the early 1920’s  and subsequently covered by Gerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead, and The Byrds.  Monty’s Theme is next, an instrumental that really shows the musical skills of this talented outfit.  Space doesn’t allow me to cover every song, but both When You Come Home, and Can’t Find My Way Home are well worth a mention, the latter written by Steve Windward and released during the short life of “superband” Blind Faith.  The penultimate song returns to the blues with Lightnin’ Slim’s, Rooster Blues,  before a rousing final ‘anthem’ We can Work Together, with plenty of audience  participation, all of whom, I’m sure, hope it won’t be too long before The Boom Band  are back at The Eel Pie again.

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Wayne Proctor and Paddy Milner 

 

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Malcolm Bruce 

A little more about the band: Matt Taylor played in The Snowy White Blues Project, and the late Long John Baldry said he was the best guitarist he ever shared a stage with!  Jon Amor was a founder member of The Hoax, one of the top rhythm ‘n’ blues bands in the country. Marcus Bonfanti, toured with and opened shows for Robert Cray, Chuck Berry, Jack Bruce, Beth Hart and many others. Paddy Milner, founder member of Ronnie Scott’s Blues explosion, played for years with Jack Bruce and is Sir Tom Jones piano player of choice.

Mark Butcher hit 8 centuries playing for England, the highest being 173 not out against Australia at Leeds in 2001.  He hit just the one 6, but he and the band hit us all for 6 at this gig.

Cliff Tapstand

June 2017

Photography by Pat Stancliffe

Sincerity with Sensuality and Sinew: Carmen

Carmen

by Georges Bizet, libretto Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy

Grange Festival at The Grange, Hampshire until 8th July

Review by Mark Aspen

Spitting and stabbings and incendiary sex-drives were not the sort of thing that one could entertain one’s proverbial maiden aunts with in 1875, even in Paris, and the first Parisian audiences had to at least pretend that they didn’t like it.  So poor Georges Bizet may have died thinking that Carmen had flopped and that it was the least popular of his works, but history has shown it to be the world’s most popular and most performed opera.

With its hummable tunes and bold colourful characters, Carmen has also become a popular opera in the sniffy sense of “pop op”.  However, that mould of the pastiche is well and truly smashed with The Grange Festival’s current production of Bizet’s Andalusian sizzler.  Here is a production that has depth, that has sinew and that has veracity.  This is the only production of Carmen that has moved me to really feel for the characters and genuinely to care about their plight.

The plot of Carmen is driven by two themes: jealousy, which here doesn’t just bubble under the surface, but rushes along in an overwhelming torrent; and of course, that sex-drive, which in this production motors at full revs with twin turbos.  However, what is firmly established is that it is the women who take the driving seat.   The opening scene in the square in Seville has the soldiers harassing the innocent Micaëla in a darkly menacing way.  She is only rescued from the threatening “gang-bang”, by the changing of the guard and the subsequent shift-change at the nearby tobacco factory, when the tobacco girls show them who really call the shots.  The softened soldiers sing “les paroles d’amour”, but the girls tell them “peut-être demain”.  Then they call for Carmen.   “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle …”, the famous habanera, establishes Carmen, for whom it would be an understatement to say that she is her own woman.

Carmen - The Grange Festival

The Grange Festival has created the world of Carmen (in the only just refurbished theatre building at The Grange) as a beautifully simple visual metaphor, initially seen as an empty stage backed by an immense cyclorama of quilted silk, reminiscent of birds’ wings, onto which projected images of various birds emerge and dissolve in the different moods of “l’oiseau rebelle”.   These images, created by acclaimed video designer, Dick Straker, enhance the atmospheric lighting of established opera lighting designer, Peter Mumford, and form part of an integrated fluid set design by the versatile Joanna Parker.  The set re-creates itself openly between acts using a series of trucked angled platforms brought on by the chorus to become variously the tobacco factory, Lillas Pasta’s blue-light clubrooms, the mountains or the Seville bullfighting arena.  Parker has collaborated with director Annabel Arden in the movement chorography, which again is integrated into the design such that surging groups: factory shifts, platoons of soldiers, arguing mobs, bands of brigands or bullfight spectators become part of the setting and of the music.

Carmen - Bizet - The Grange Festival - 11 June 2017 Conductor - Jean-Luc Tingaud Director - Annabel Arden Designer - Joanna Parker Lighting - Peter Mumford Carmen - Na’ama Goldman Don José - Leonardo Capalbo Escamillo - Phillip Rhodes Michael - Shell

The concept of integration is taken up by The Grange Festival Chorus, its ensemble engaging the multi-layered musical perspective effortlessly into the opera.  The   Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Jean Luc Tingaud is musically faultless and take Bizet’s score with the energetic attack that it deserves, whilst still savouring all of the lyrical nuances of the piece.  (Remarkably, Tingaud studied at the Paris Conservatoire under Manuel Rosenthal, then of advanced years, who in turn had worked with some of the original artists from Carmen’s 1875 Paris premiere.)   Whilst Carmen is popularly famous for its forte passages, BSO greatly enhance the lyrical passages and, at the beginning of Act III, bring the flute soloist onto the stage for the crystal clear Prelude, which interweaves a harp accompaniment and clarinet response: beautiful.

Carmen - Bizet - The Grange Festival - 11 June 2017 Conductor - Jean-Luc Tingaud Director - Annabel Arden Designer - Joanna Parker Lighting - Peter Mumford Carmen - Na’ama Goldman Don José - Leonardo Capalbo Escamillo - Phillip Rhodes Michael - Shell

However, Carmen’s fire is sparked by its eponymous free-spirted anti-heroine.  Carmen    flits through the interstices of society with a vixen-like agility, sharp, sensual, seductive, but skilful, shrewd and perceptive.   Israeli mezzo-soprano Na’ama Goldman excels as Carmen, her luscious velvety voice speaking in fiery song for the character, and inhabiting Carmen’s restless soul.  Carmen sings “toujours l’amour”, but her conflicting impulsive instinct, “je veux être libree” is the cause of the downfall of the hapless Don José, who becomes obsessively infatuated with Carmen.  American-Italian tenor Leonardo Capalbo is totally convincing in this role, a man hopelessly smitten in spite of his own better council, and that of Micaëla his child-hood sweetheart.  Carmen dances her habanera, which presciently finishes “prends garde á toi”, throws the flower and José is irredeemably snared.  Capalbo’s rendering of José’s response,  “la fleur que tu m’avais jetée’” is reflective and lyrical.  But as José slides down a spiral of total enthrallment, Capalbo shifts his tone into the realm of the dramatic tenor, exploring José’s anguish and conflicting emotions.

Carmen - Bizet - The Grange Festival - 11 June 2017 Conductor - Jean-Luc Tingaud Director - Annabel Arden Designer - Joanna Parker Lighting - Peter Mumford Carmen - Na’ama Goldman Don José - Leonardo Capalbo Escamillo - Phillip Rhodes Michael - Shell

Silly man, we say, he should have stayed with Micaëla, his sweetheart from back home in Navarre, who truly loves him and has sought him out to bring a messages from his ailing mother, coming vicariously with “un baiser de ma mère”.  Shelley Jackson, much acclaimed internationally as in the USA, gives a beautiful portrayal of Micaëla, of her sweet innocence and her devotion.  Jackson sings with great charm and grace bringing all the skills of the lyrical soprano to the role. We are frequently led to glimpse Micaëla as a Madonna, embodying both young virgin and mother.  (Indeed costume co-designer Ilona Karas drapes her in Madonna blue.)

Carmen - Bizet - The Grange Festival - 11 June 2017 Conductor - Jean-Luc Tingaud Director - Annabel Arden Designer - Joanna Parker Lighting - Peter Mumford Carmen - Na’ama Goldman Don José - Leonardo Capalbo Escamillo - Phillip Rhodes Michael - Shell

The toreador, Escamillo, glorious but arrogant, courageous but full of bravado, needs a singer with great aplomb, and Phillip Rhodes is impressive in this role.  The well-known Toreador’s song is delivered with great attack and Rhodes effortlessly fills the full range of the baritone voice demanded by the piece.

Carmen - The Grange Festival

Sopranos Marianne Croux and Filipa van Eck are very spirited as Carmen’s companions Frasquita and Mercédès and are a joy to watch.   In Act II, Lillas Pasta’s becomes a glitzy late twentieth century nightclub, complete with silver slit-drape and roll-along glitter-balls, which make a stylish sparkling setting for Frasquita and Mercédès to perform with Carmen, and here we also see Croux and van Eck’s dancing skills.  The smugglers, Le Dancaire and le Remendado appear, played by Tiago Matos and Christophe Poncet de Solages as a pair of wide-boys.  Mutually supportive, they catch just that right amount of vaudeville humour, and with Frasquita and Mercédès they form a well-differentiated foursome.   Together they explode with ensemble energy for the quintet,”nous avons en tête une affaire”.

The lowest registers are in fine hands with Russian-American bass Grigory Soloviov as Captain of the Guard, Zuniga, acted as slow on the uptake, whilst sung with rich resonance.

The Grange Festival’s Carmen is undoubtedly an outstanding production, but for this reviewer has one irritating flaw.  Bizet’s score with Meilhac and Halévy’s libretto has much spoken dialogue which is often cut.  Here, having cut most of the dialogue and some recitative, it is replaced by an extraneous commentary, delivered by two narrators, La Commère and Le Compère (the gossip and her crony?).  They explain what is happening, seemingly for any six-year olds who may be watching.  They are forever pulling the focus and breaking the musical continuity and emotional momentum.   (The nadir comes with a mimed description of the bull-fighting arena.  Draw out a circle, ah, it’s a ring; flap a cloak, ah, it’s for bull-fighting; bring in a plate of oranges, ah, it’s in Seville … geddit?).  All the production’s exemplary acting and dancing, the beautiful singing and Bizet’s brilliantly crafted music speak for themselves.  Why not let them speak?

Carmen - The Grange Festival

Nevertheless, this is a Carmen that is truly exceptional.  It puts aside the superficial of a rollicking good story to probe its darker depths, and examine the powerful human emotions, the irresistible strength of the animal sensuality that is Carmen, and her allure, an allure that gathers all around in her thrall.  This is an allure that leaves Don José pitifully consumed and helplessly deluded, a fatal delusion that leads the opera to its climactic conclusion.

Mark Aspen

June 2017

Photographs by Robert Workman